Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage in NYC

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend an extraordinary “double-feature” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Here’s how the two films–both from acclaimed filmmaker Pierre Sauvage–were billed:

And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille (USA, forthcoming in 2011, digital video)

Sauvage presents a preview of his documentary about the most successful private American rescue effort during the Nazi era. The mission led by a New York intellectual Varian Fry helped some 2,000 people escape from France, including many scholars and artists.

Not Idly By: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust (USA, 2009, digital video, 40 minutes)

Post-screening discussion with Pierre Sauvage interviewed by author and Vanity Fair writer-at-large Marie Brenner.

This film presents the challenging testimony of a militant Palestinian Jew who spent the war years in the U.S. leading a group that struggled to make saving the Jews of Europe an American objective. The controversial Peter Bergson is given his posthumous say as he castigates American Jewish leaders at the time for failing to pressure the American government to save European Jews.

I’ve been a fan of Pierre Sauvage’s work since I saw Weapons of the Spirit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts 20 years ago. (A paper I wrote about that film and Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants helped convince an esteemed professor to take me on as an undergraduate thesis advisee; I am proud to still count that professor as one of my dearest friends.) And having the chance to see Marie Brenner interview him was an additional lure (and kept me going to the Museum of Jewish Heritage even when the NYC subway system seemed determined to stop me).

The Varian Fry film is not yet complete. Fry’s story, with which I became familiar in my doctoral research on Franco-American relations during the WWII era, is one that should certainly be better known. The excerpt we saw on Sunday was great; I look forward to seeing the completed film.

The Peter Bergson film is, in Brenner’s words, “shocking.” Yes, it can be difficult (and unfair) to judge others’ actions when separated by decades. And, as with so much else related to the war years, one is ill-advised to make categorical statements. But after seeing this film, it’s hard not to think that American Jews–particularly American Jews in high places–could have done more to save their coreligionists in Europe. Peter Bergson’s story is deeply disturbing. Screenings will continue this spring at various film festivals (Los Angeles, Toronto, Warsaw, Zagreb are currently listed). Try to see it.